In the tough-act-to-follow pool, Dave Rollins dove into the deep end this past September when he became FGCU’s new head coach for women’s swimming and diving.
Rollins’ predecessor – the program’s founding coach, Neal Studd, who left in July to take over Florida State’s men’s and women’s swim teams — had raised the bar to the figurative equivalent of a 10-meter diving platform by winning seven Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association championships in eight years and six CCSA Coach of the Year awards, guiding the Eagles to as high as a No. 19 national ranking and qualifying several swimmers for the NCAA championships and Olympics.
But Rollins, who knows all about swimming in the sport’s fast lane as an accomplished competitor and coach himself, quickly created his own splash.
In February, he made the transition from Studd’s coaching style to his own as smoothly as switching legs during a relay by leading the Eagles to an eighth CCSA title in Athens, Ga., and bringing home his own Coach of the Year award — the initial steps in putting his own imprint on FGCU swimming and diving while continuing to build on its success.
“I’m trying to see what I can do to improve our program, not just get our athletes to swim faster,” Rollins said. “I want to do things away from the pool to help our athletes develop on a personal level, to set them up for careers and a life after swimming.
“Athletic success is just one factor in coaching and recruiting,” he said. “I try to go a bit deeper, learn about students’ families, what makes them tick, what they are really passionate about. If you can make that connection, that develops a sense of trust. I want to build relationships that don’t last just four years, but 30 or 40.”
Rollins comes to FGCU after being associate head coach of an Ohio State team that’s a perennial Big Ten power, and previous assistant coaching jobs with big-time programs at Northern Arizona and his alma mater, the University of Arizona. The native of Brockton, Mass., also led championship swim clubs in Ohio and Arizona.
As a competitor, before graduating from Arizona in 2007 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, Rollins was captain of the Wildcats, swam for a national championship team, was a nine-time All-American, set four school records, and for six years owned the U.S. record for fastest breaststroke leg in the 200 medley relay.
One of Rollins’ mentors is his former coach, Frank Busch, national team director of USA Swimming, a coaching hall of famer and former head coach at Arizona and the University of Cincinnati. Busch applauds Rollins’ hiring by FGCU.
“You see people as athletes and know the ones who really study the sport,” said Busch, who recruited Rollins out of high school. “You can see it in their eyes that coaching interests them, and I could see that with Dave. I could tell his path and passion were all about coaching. He’s ready to be a head coach at a major program. I’m sure his expectations are higher than ever.”
While talking one recent morning in the reception area outside his office in the Outdoor Sports Complex at FGCU, Rollins was engaged in a different sort of sport — babysitting his 4-year-old daughter, Alice, who was in perpetual motion and coloring up a storm while her mom, Caroline, was out and about with younger brother Elliot.
The tall, fair-skinned Rollins is in great shape. It’s obvious he still maintains the daily training habits of a competitive athlete, and even his favorite food, pizza, is his own concoction as he adheres to a vegan diet. But even he’s having a tough time keeping up with little Alice this day. And it’s in that loving, playful interaction between father and daughter where one sees — regardless of the success he’s enjoyed in and around the pool — that the title carrying the most meaning for Rollins these days is that of dad. That’s one of the reasons he finds FGCU the perfect fit for this stage of his career.
“The main goal I have is to provide for my family, make sure they’re happy,” Rollins said while watching his daughter whip out yet another Crayola masterpiece. “The atmosphere around here is perfect … I can bring my kids to practice, she can be on the deck during meets, she’s in the team photo. Having that family atmosphere is something that’s really important for us.”